Stopping and Starting

Posted on Fri 28 June 2019 in transition

To save time repeating tedious explanations to everyone, I thought I would try to offer an explanation of my ... erratic ... history of transitioning.

Those who've known me a long time or have heard dark whispering in corridors or were avid readers of the Mail, Sun or Telegraph back in the late 1990s, will know that I started down the path of transitioning once before. This was in April 1999, when I was living in Oxford and working at Queens as a temporary lecturer, and then the following year, when I was doing a similar job at Wadham. And then, in the summer of 2000, I bailed out and reverted.

On all sorts of levels, this seems like a perverse decision. In those days the process was that you needed twelve months doing the "real life test" before they let you near any drugs, to see if you could cope, if you socialised in the new role and that you didn't frighten too many horses. So I did that, and I held down two jobs and I had won a Junior Research Fellowship at Christ Church while living as Isabel. I had submitted my DPhil and been examined on it. I was doing the academic stations of the cross (publication, conference, etc). I had a hugely supportive partner, and supportive housemates. My parents (and my partner's) had not disowned me. We were buying a house. It was all going swimmingly.

I'd be pretending if it was entirely a rational decision, despite my assurances in some quarters that I had thought it through. Kudos to Stephen Heyworth, for whom I was substituting at Wadham, for sending me a concerned email saying that he was worried that I was going to regret and revise this decision in years to come. But by then it was (for me) too late.

One of the reasons, and these are in no particular order, was that I was ground down by anxiety. This was not at all in relation to interactions at work, where (whatever the personal views of colleagues or students), I never had a problem. And of course everyone at work knew anyway, so it was hardly a secret. By contrast, my tension about going outside never eased. Indeed, it became worse. Without over-dramatising, I was constantly on edge about being read in the street, and I found it harder and harder to do things socially. Not that I stopped entirely, even to the extent of being dragged out (as it were) house-hunting, but by the end I was avoiding going out as much as possible. It's also the case that, while I generally didn't get much street hassle, apart from in the very beginning, through and after the media exposure (and this stayed with me), it was at the end that verbal commentary seemed to start happening, or I was hearing it more. Either way, that didn't exactly help.

A related issue is that I never lost the feeling of being on display, as it were. I never managed to generate an off-duty look. So work was fine, but outside ... Arguably that's a more fundamental issue with me about my relationship with work.

It's probably fair to say that many academics are a trifle obsessive about their work. It's also the case that for many of us (generalising wildly) a lot of how they see themselves is bound up in their work. It's one of the things that I've tried to explain to people off and on over the years that I tended (and perhaps still do) to see myself as a classicist first and other things second (including gender). This isn't healthy, and I think it's changed a lot. But I found myself begrudging the time element (not just in preparing the self-defensive carapace of display, but also in terms of head space). I could be using the time for research or (this being Oxford) spending more time reading student essays, writing feedback, etc. I tried explaining this once to one of the professionals with whom I have been dealing, and felt just shallow or stupid, or both. It probably doesn't help that I tend to make self-mocking jokes about this kind of behaviour.

For me, the whole issue is about finding a place that's liveable. When I first came out, I was definitely not transitioning, and maybe if we'd been doing non-binary in those days, I would have professed that. Who knows? Intellectually, I was sceptical about an essentialist stance, and being committed to a constructed view of gender, something more fluid initially appealed. But in any case, it's a lot easier essaying that when you're a student, and then facing the world of work concentrates the mind. Where do I stand? What do I actually want? And that's led to transitioning in 1999. I'd recovered from an attack of depression and (drugs, counselling), which had also left me thinking through things (albeit rather indirectly). It's possible, indeed probable, that by mid-2000, I'd forgotten what it had been like.

But in any case, what really undermined me is what I now recognise as the all-too-familiar ‘imposter syndrome’: you're not good enough, others want it more, they are doing it properly (as woman, as a transwoman, you name it). I think I recognise now much more than I did then (which would not be hard) not only that folk have many different stories, but also that this is the kind of self-undermining behaviour that affects so many. I am not saying I am over that kind of thing, but I can at least recognise it (sometimes).

Also it's probably not a great idea to approach the system as if it's an exam, but that's the kind of mindset I was familiar with, and the process rather encouraged that. While I wouldn't say I had a bad experience with the psychiatric services in Oxford or with Charing Cross, where I was punted on to eventually, it was rather a ‘convince us‘ model. I had a lecture (or at least the part that stuck with me was) on the need to be certain, given the clear impression they weren't totally convinced by me, and given the choice of moving onto hormones or going into group therapy (sine die). I hate even the thought of group therapy. Naturally I went for the drugs. But the product of that discussion was this nagging doubt: are you certain? Really? My housemate Gideon exclaimed in despair as things moved to the endgame ‘But you're not certain of anything.’

At the same time, it doesn't help that I have a deeply ingrained ‘mustn't grumble’ approach to doctors. (‘How are your eyes?’ ‘Fine.’) I remember vividly being asked whether I had started electrolysis and got a sniff when I said ‘no’. What I should have said, of course, is that i) I have no money, ii) no-one to my knowledge was offering to pay for it, since the message I'd had from the Oxford services was that they'd pay for drugs, but a case would have to be made for anything else. How did I feel about facial hair? Now I hate facial hair, and have spent the best part of the last three years trying to get rid of it. And part of my reluctance to dispense with the ‘full clown’ was precisely my embarrassment at the dreaded facial hair. That has not gone. But I mumbled some half-assed platitudes, of course I did.

Mind you, it was about this time that it was becoming harder to ignore the fact that my eyes were disintegrating. (I still remember tripping over a doorstep in Magdalen cloisters, presumably while I was on the way to see my supervisor.) Could I really deal with two personal crises at the same time?

Anyway, all of these unhealthy thoughts and behaviours were amplified when I started taking the hormones. Not immediately, but when I found myself on more than one occasion crying under the desk in my office at Wadham, I thought that I needed to call a halt.

So there you have it: a limited account of myself. I leave you to ponder, like George Smiley on Bill Haydon, how much truth this really tells you. whether there is any truth in it.

Twenty Years After

All of which brings us to twenty years later. Like Dumas, there'll of necessity be some back-story needed.

So, I started the JRF at Christ Church, as Ian, and everyone in Oxford (whatever they said in private) carried on as if nothing had happened. (My personal belief is that it is one of the strengths and weaknesses of the place that they are pretty good at studiously ignoring anything, academically or personally, that doesn't fit.) I left after a year after being nudged into applying for a permanent post in Glasgow. This wasn't actually running away, although it is about as far as you can go from the scene of the crime while still being employed in Classics in the UK. But I was still shattered by what I had done; it took years to recover. And the way I did was to tell myself that I had had my chance, it didn't work out, let's try to move on. It's not that there was a purge or attempts at denial, as such. Rather I tried very hard not to think about it too much at all. If students asked about it (and in the early years they did), I said I had no regrets (starting or stopping), although really I had no good perspective on it at all. I did get taken aside by one senior member of the then Classics Department and advised (sotto voce and with much euphemism) against excessive flamboyance and that Glasgow was a conservative city, but apart from token dangly ear-rings (singled out for disapprobation in student feedback), there was nothing to worry about. I had made my decision.

Anyway, I threw myself into teaching. Glasgow in those days was very teaching heavy and in certain parts of the department there was an anti-research culture, which brought it its own problems down the line. But it was good for displacement activity. And I became heavily involved in local politics, through the Glasgow Green Party, and then started doing insane amounts of stuff for the national party. Of course there was an ideological element, but the potential for displacement activity was immense. And somewhere along the line, I realised that if I didn't finish my book, I was professionally toast. And since 2010–11, when Classics came very close to being closed down, it has been internalised performance management hell, as we have dug ourselves out of the hole. Along the way, Chloe and I started a family.

But, of course, nothing's forgotten. Nothing's ever forgotten. Interacting, personally and professionally, with transfolk has often left me trying to ignore the writhing internal mix of inadequacy and self-recrimination (la la la, I'm not listening). And the Guardian's determination since about 2010 to run a trans feature on what seems at least a weekly basis has felt like a knife in the guts. The crisis came in 2015. I was on leave, supposed to be writing a book on ancient automata (hello Leverhulme), and perhaps it was spending an extended period of time with myself, and perhaps I had a bit more perspective, but that's when it felt like the lid blew off. Amusingly, interacting with senior management for the first time had much the same effect as teaching full time for the first time in terms of re-evaluating my relationship with masculinity. (Yes, of course there are many masculinities: it's just that some have a particularly toxic effect on me. And I'm not saying either that I don't betray the effects of 47 years [minus sixteen months] of masculine socialisation myself.) Cue personal crisis, weepy moments in the refectory, recriminations, etc. This is the first time that I have actually consciously addressed the possibility of regret.

Cue more prevarication and angst. Eventually I contact the Sandyford, who (amazingly, after the process last time) do self-referrals. They also do a healthy waiting list (plus ça change). A lot has changed in two decades (legally, in terms of protocols, and the general vibe), but nothing has happened fast (counselling and other support), and I've had a lot to process. Ultimately, I've always known I'd start down this path again once I took the first step, but the indecision, or perhaps better lack of resolution, has taken me perilously close to the edge in the mean time. If stopping the first time was worse than starting, starting for the second time has been tortuous.

Of course, having made a decision to go for it again, I end up on a gene therapy trial for my eye condition, and more awkward conversations. The upshot of those left me paused for twelve months, with an undertaking not to do anything medical.

So here we are. What's different this time? Perhaps the biggest thing is that I recognise the way that the mind-set that can be so self-destructive in academics is also at play in thinking of myself as a transwoman. I think I have a better understanding of it now and can even deal with it better. The eyesight is obviously a lot worse (‘I can see, I can see perfectly!’), but as frustrating and annoying as that can be, it's a fact and you just have to adapt (‘You've got the make-up in the right places! Even mascara!’ as one fellow-traveller put it). The prospect of sitting around until I drop off the perch thinking it was impossible because of visual impairment now seems horrifying and absurd to me. As for resilience... who knows? I at least have better perspective.

And there's the family, about whom I have not said much, largely because Chloe can speak for herself if she wants, and I try not to talk too much about the children in public forums. All I will say is that we've been honest with each other from the start and nothing's changed.